TAMPA — The reprieve from the mysterious killings that have paralyzed Seminole Heights lasted about a month.
The first three people were killed in an 11-day period — all within a one-mile radius — in mid-October. Police knew of no motive and had no details about a possible suspect. They warned residents not to walk alone at night. Foot traffic dried up. Residents stopped lounging on their porches. Halloween festivities proceeded cautiously, with Tampa’s mayor and interim police chief joining children to trick-or-treat as a show of faith in the community.
Fear saturated the neighborhood. There was talk of a serial killer.
Then, shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday, police responded to a shooting call and found Ronald Felton, 60, dead in the street blocks from the other slayings. Another victim, seemingly at random. The fourth one.
“I know the big question’s going to be: Is this related to the other Seminole Heights murders?” interim Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said. “And right now we are treating it as though it is related until we can rule otherwise.”
Felton had been crossing Nebraska Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main north-south thoroughfares, when a man came up behind him and shot him, Dugan said.
Previously homeless, Felton volunteered twice a week with a food bank at the intersection where he was found, Cynthia Murray, 68, told the Tampa Bay Times. Felton’s sister described him as “a quiet, peaceful person who would not bother anyone.”
“He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back,” Tina Felton told the newspaper. She added that she had warned her brother in recent weeks to be careful because of the unsolved shootings.
In contrast to the three earlier killings, this time police had a description of the suspect, thanks to a witness who heard a gunshot and saw someone running from the scene on foot. The suspect was described as a black male with a light complexion, about 6 feet tall, with a thin build; he was dressed in all-black clothing and had a large pistol, police said.
Dugan told reporters that he thinks the suspect lives in the neighborhood, and he urged residents to be vigilant.
“This has got to stop, and we will hunt this person down until we’ve found them,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday.
In late October, police had released surveillance video of a figure running from the scene of one of the earlier shootings. Investigators have not yet identified the person of interest in that video, and the footage is “very much still relevant” to the investigation, Tampa police spokesman Eddy Durkin said.
Authorities said investigators have been working nonstop to track the killer — or, perhaps, killers — since the first victim was found dead Oct. 9.
Benjamin Mitchell, an aspiring musician and community college student, was shot while standing alone at a bus stop, police said.
Four days later, officers discovered the body of 32-year-old waitress Monica Hoffa in a vacant lot about 10 blocks from where Mitchell was found.
Then, on Oct. 19, they found the body of Anthony Naiboa, 20. According to his father, Naiboa, who had a mild form of autism, had probably boarded a different bus after his usual route was shut down, and was unfamiliar with Seminole Heights.
He was walking home when he was killed, police said.
The common thread was the Route 9 bus, which meanders on a north-south path from the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa. The bus has since been rerouted, and officials have taken other measures to safeguard the community.
“It’s been a very rough couple of months,” Seminole Heights resident Renee Campbell told The Washington Post. “We’ve had to change all of our patterns, if you will. We don’t walk the dog anymore twice a day. We don’t sit outside as much as we used to. We used to sit on the front porch and chat after dinner. Now we do it in the back yard, if we go out at all.”
Campbell said she found out Tuesday morning, on Facebook, that there had been a fourth shooting, this time just a block from her home. As she tried to leave for work in the morning, she said, she was stopped three times by police officers with rifles.
For much of the day Tuesday, police locked down about a half-square-mile section of Seminole Heights and were going door to door, canvassing the neighborhood and talking to residents and business owners.
Campbell said her family had planned to put their house up on the market in mid-October but decided to hold off.
“Obviously, it’s not going to sell right now,” she said.
Brent Stoehs, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, said he woke up to the sound of a police helicopter Tuesday morning and thought, “Yep, another one.”
Since the homicides began, he said, he has noticed increased police presence and less foot traffic after dark. On Tuesday, local and federal law enforcement officials set up a command center at Seminole Heights Baptist Church, just northwest of the lockdown area. A van from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was surrounded by police cars of all shapes and sizes.
Many businesses were closed, and a helicopter buzzed overhead.
“Everyone is on edge,” said Stoehs, 37. “This is crazy. We’ve never had anything like this.”
While he spoke, authorities in ATF vests went door to door asking residents questions. Through the afternoon, several residents waited at nearby Giddens Park for authorities to let them back onto their streets and into their homes. Michael McKiernan was separated from his wife, who was not allowed to leave her house. She told him that authorities swept through their property and back yard looking for a suspect.
Rick Fifer, who lives and works in Seminole Heights and owns Vintage Homes Realty, has noticed far fewer pedestrians and had a couple of people cancel home showings because they got “cold feet” after the shootings.
Fifer said his dog’s incessant barking woke him up about 5 a.m. Tuesday as police cars and helicopters converged on the neighborhood.
The latest killing, he said, occurred less than a mile south of his home — and within a block of his office.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 25 years, and we’ve never had anything like this. It’s unnerving,” said Fifer, 55. “It does affect your thinking. If I go to put the trash out and it’s midnight, I start thinking and wondering and looking around more than I used to.”
Fifer said he stayed indoors on Halloween and has heard from neighbors who feel jumpy just passing someone on the street.
“People shouldn’t have to live that way,” he said. “We have certainly some of your inner-city challenges with interesting people, but I’ve always described Seminole Heights as a big small town in the middle of the city. Even though we’ve got an interstate that runs through the neighborhood, we actually have a lot of community cohesion on both sides of the interstate.”
Now he worries that the new businesses that have opened in Seminole Heights in the past few years will suffer because the killings are having a chilling effect.
“Is this going to set us back?” Fifer said. “We’re a very resilient group of people in this neighborhood, but it is really uncomfortable that some of our progress is being threatened by this.”
Tampa police are offering up to $35,000 for information about the killings.
— TampaPD (@TampaPD) October 31, 2017
Wang reported from Washington. Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.